WATFORD, England — Troy Deeney will captain Watford in Saturday’s FA Cup final against Manchester City (11:55 a.m. ET, ESPN+), aiming to lift the cup to cap a remarkable journey that began with him being sent to prison for 10 months in 2012 for an attack on a group of students in his home city of Birmingham.
The 30-year-old, who was released after serving three months of his sentence after he displayed remorse for the incident, has since turned his life around and become a crucial figure for Watford during their rise from the EFL Championship to become an established force in the Premier League.
With Deeney preparing for the biggest game of his career this weekend, he spoke to ESPN FC about overcoming the challenges of his personal life to prove that there can be a way out of even the most difficult circumstances.
Mark Ogden: How does it feel to be captaining Watford in an FA Cup final at Wembley, considering your story up to this point?
Deeney: It’s one of them games when, looking back on it now, from my background to meeting royalty (Prince William) and stuff like that, it’s mental, really, when you think about it. We are massive underdogs, but at the same time, I’m hugely proud of the achievement.
Ogden: You talk about your background, and it’s quite a compelling story, to overcome adversity to captain a team in the FA Cup final — you spent time in prison back in 2012, tell us about that.
Deeney: I’m just a normal kid, really, from an inner-city background. I just got into a bit of s— as a kid. I used to be a happy kid, a real happy-go-lucky kid, but the environment changed me, really. I still am quite a happy-go-lucky person, but I’ve just got another side to me obviously that I don’t like to bring out. Going back to 2012, it was a bad year for me. I lost my dad as well, so burying him a week before I went to jail, just having all of that emotion, it just hit me hard.
When I got to jail, it was a blessing in disguise because it made me reevaluate and check who I am as a person. It opened up new avenues … such as seeing a psychologist and really just having to deal with my problems because I used to drink a lot as well. I used to think I was dealing with things, but I was drinking and that kind of went into a spiral effect.
Since coming out of jail, I still made mistakes daily. Don’t me wrong, I’m not an angel by any stretch of the imagination, but my mistakes are just normal ones now like forgetting to go to the shop when the missus asks or not putting the bins out, stuff like that.
Ogden: Some people go to prison and it doesn’t change them, but you used the time to write down things you had to do and focus on what to change?
Deeney: Yeah, and that’s what I do now. I still stick to that. I do three-month challenges, whether it be financial, weight loss — what I’ve always done is set myself a target because I think the worst thing any person can do is get stagnant and literally just be like, “Life goes on,” and they carry on doing this and before you know it you’re back into your old ways.
[After prison] I cut alcohol and gambling out altogether, split up with my ex-partner, got a new missus who literally just don’t put up with no s—. She just tells me how I am.
Everyone had written me off, which is what I needed. I need people to be like, “He can’t do it anymore, he’s just too old now, we’ve got to get rid of him,’ and it’s like, ‘I’ll show you.” So I’m three and a half stone down now, and I’ve got a beard and everything. The whole world has changed.
Ogden: After being sent to prison, did you fear being out of the game? Watford stood by you, but that could have been different.
Deeney: The new ownership took over at the same time. By August, we had 42 players at the time — they just bought, bought, bought, and I was coming out in September, so by the time they got to the end of August, it kind of got like, “Who is this No. 9, where is he?” They had a few conversations with my agent and thankfully [manager] Gianfranco Zola knew of me. He must have thought, “He’s got talent, let’s see what he’s like when he comes out.” And at this point, they [Watford] weren’t paying me, so it wasn’t costing them.
So I came out on a Wednesday, came into the club straight away, introduced myself — I was on a tag at the time, so I had about a six-hour window — had a quick chat with Zola and said, “I’ve made mistakes, but I mean business now.” He said, “There are eight strikers and you are No. 9,” but I was like, “OK, cool, but that won’t last for long.”
I was really bullish at the time. I’ve just come out of jail, my hair is this big, I was massive as well because all I could do [in prison] was weights and push-ups, so I literally just said to him, “Give me a week,” and I just ran myself for a week.
I used to travel from Birmingham, get in, just do everything — run, gym, diet, the lot, finish at 5, get back up for my curfew at 7, go to sleep, do it all again, and that’s all I did, and within 10 days of being released, I’d scored the winner against Huddersfield.
Ogden: So that was the turning point for you?
Deeney: From that point on, the rest is history, but to me it’s a case of putting my mind to it because there were so many distractions back home. Or, I had so many distractions I should say in terms of running round with all my pals from back home, earning a few quid, thought I was the man, and just living like an a–hole really — that’s probably the best way to describe it. I thought I was untouchable. And then the best thing about that was getting sent to jail and literally seeing who’s who.
About six people wrote to me, about five people sent me money and then just a couple of people, actually two people, checked in on the missus and the little man [son Myles] at the time to see how they were. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I have to see who’s who. But now I know who’s who and who is really around me and I’m very aware of that.
Ogden: Tell us about your tattoos and what they mean in relation to your past.
Deeney: My nan wrote me a poem when I was in there. “I fought a good fight, I finished the course, I’ve kept the faith.” She wrote that for me, just before I want in, and I just used to read it before I went to bed. It’s one of them, just keep going and you never know, you made mistakes but things keep happening.
And then I’ve got my dad here [on right arm]. My dad died at 47, so that would have been 2012 again. I found out he had cancer at the end of February, start of March and he died in May, so it was literally an eight-week period of seeing my superhero just go bang, bang, bang.
I’ve got one on my back, which is a soldier, which is basically me, just trying to get home and chill. Remember that “Gladiator” film, when he’s walking through the wheat? That kind of inspiration in terms of yeah, “I’m tired of fighting now. I just want to enjoy myself.”
Ogden: Is there room for a tattoo of the FA Cup if you win on Saturday?
Deeney: If that’s the case, it would go all across the front here! Yeah, if we win that, it would be put on me somewhere.
Ogden: After the win against Wolves in the semifinal, you gave an interview in which you said you were being selfish by talking about what it meant to you, but it struck a nerve with a lot of people.
Deeney: I talk a lot, but I genuinely don’t like to talk about myself. I like to talk about everything else, but that moment hit home because, after the game, I literally didn’t want to be with any of the lads. It sounds really bad, but I just wanted to see my family. My mum doesn’t really watch my games much, my missus was up there, my boys were up there, and it’s like, you know when everyone that has been with you through the hard times?
With Instagram and all that now, everyone thinks life is perfect, but there’s days where I go on and I’m in a bad mood or I’ve trained poorly or whatever it might be, I’m just in a bad mood — they’re the ones who have to deal with it and see it because I’m not a nice guy when I’m in a bad mood. I just don’t speak to people and I cut myself off and, naturally, it impacts their day as well, so I just wanted to be with them and we had a nice moment.
I was in reflective mode. About 13 years ago I was paying to play football, and you look at it, it’s probably 15, 18 tiers below the Premier League and I was paying £10 a week to play football and be one of the lads. Now I’m captain of a team that’s in the Premier League and a FA Cup final. It’s mad, really.
Ogden: And now you’re in the FA Cup final against a team that is on for a domestic Treble — you couldn’t have picked a tougher opponent, I guess …
Deeney: No, but also that’s the way that Troy does it! I have to make it as hard for myself as possible, but nah, I think let’s just talk about what if we’ve won the game. There’s no excuses then. It’s not like, Oh, you won it but you didn’t play any of the big boys or anything like that. You have to get to this level of competition and play the best manager of this generation. You’ve got some of the best players around and then you’ve got us trying to stand in their way.
But for me, it’s no fear. Look at everything we just spoke about. Football isn’t going to scare me or playing against Man City … because of everything I’ve been through.
Ogden: Do your teammates have the same mentality going into the game?
Deeney: I think so, from the conversations we’ve had with people. And this is sport, it’s not real life, and how many times have you gone through the history of sport, whether it be football or boxing or whatever, there are all sorts of things that happen and you go, “Where did that come from?” I’m going to enjoy the moment, I’m going to meet royalty for the first time — touching on that again, I apologize — but I’m proper mind-blown that that’s happening, even though he [Prince William] is a Villa fan, I’ll let him off!
Ogden: You’re talking about Prince William, the future king?
Deeney: Yeah, the future king, but I’m a Blues fan and he’s a Villa fan so, I’ll give him a bit of stick for that. Everyone’s telling me not to, but I think I’m going to have to.
Ogden: Teams starting with W in FA Cup finals — Wimbledon beat Liverpool in 1988, Wigan beat Man City in 2013, Watford …
Deeney: Yeah, I think that’s where you’ve got to draw confidence from. I can still remember when Ben Watson scored that header [for Wigan in 2013]. You know you’re going to have to ride your luck, you know you’re going to have to stay within touching distance until the last 10 minutes or whatever, but every time we get a chance, we’ve just got to score and we’ve got to make sure we’re clinical.
Otherwise, it could be a long day.